'That's the Big Question: Are there any fish out there?'

Times Staff Writer

Equipped with a long, rusty nail for a pole, some borrowed bait tied to the end of three feet of line with no hook, the 7-year-old boy was explaining to his classmates from the Mothers at Work children's center about the one that got away.

"I almost caught a fish. It was about this long," he said, spreading his hands a foot apart. "But it bit me. It was big. It had small teeth," the boy called B.J. shouted to the other youngsters who lined the banks of the lake on a recent outing to Cerritos Regional Park.

"I don't think there are any fish out there," a 4-year-old preschooler said.

"That's the Big Question: Are there any fish out there?" said teacher Mary Manariono, who accompanied the children from the Lakewood preschool to the park.

Fishing wasn't on the agenda when the 35 children, who ranged from 4 to about 10, took a field trip on Friday to the 86-acre county park. But when they saw the five-acre, man-made freshwater lake, they just had to fish.

They pounced on unsuspecting Michael Vernal, 14, of Hawaiian Gardens. Vernal, a nice guy, spent a good part of the morning cutting up his fishing line and sharing his bait with the excited youths from Mothers At Work.

Even though it took time from his own fishing, Vernal patiently fashioned fishing pole after fishing pole.

The lake has been luring all kinds of fishermen, even some with poles and hooks, since the park opened in 1978, said Ed Patterson, county recreational director. The lake is surrounded by acres of grass, tennis courts, ball diamonds, a concession stand, a swimming pool, outdoor basketball courts and an indoor gym. There are always plenty of activities.

Along the bank of the lake--downstream and away from the gaggle of preschoolers--11-year-old Ty Curtis cast his line and hovered over the limp fishing cord.

"I have never caught anything here. I've been coming here since 1984," said Curtis.

"I've used everything. Night crawlers. Cheese bait. Regular marshmallows. Cheese marshmallows. I've caught fish other places but never here," said Curtis, who had a patient but determined look.

Nearby, Mark Kamimura, 14, and his pal Daniel Choy, 14, were also having no luck. They still praised the virtues of fishing.

"This is better than staying home and watching TV," Choy said.

"Yeah, summer can be real boring unless you have lots of money and can go to the movies in the mall," Kamimura said.

Kamimura and Choy, even with lots of time on their hands, caught nothing.

Upstream, Rodney Johns, 19, of Buena Park also was passing a day without fish, but fishing is more than a hobby for him, it is one of the ways he gets exercise. Johns rides a 10-speed bicycle to various lakes in Los Angeles and Orange counties, spends some time fishing, then bicycles home.

"It strengthens my legs and builds up my endurance," said Johns, who is training to become a boxer. A middleweight at 155 pounds, Johns said he has been boxing for about three months and will be in his first amateur bout July 31 at the Fullerton Elks Lodge. "My ambition is to become a pro and make lots of dough," said Johns, who described spending his early teens fighting in gangs, then decided to make his love of fighting pay off.

For many of the luckless casters, the question remains: Are there fish in the lake?

The county has the lake stocked every month or sometimes every other month with 200 to 300 pounds of catfish, which amounts to about 600 fish, said Patterson, the regional recreational director.

"We don't announce when we will stock for obvious reasons. People would come only at those times," Patterson said.

The budget for 1985-86 for five lakes within the southern region, including Cerritos, was about $30,000 for catfish stock, Patterson said.

The county stocks only catfish, but other fish are caught at Cerritos lake, including bluegill and bass.

"I caught some bite-size bluegill before," Kamimura said. "They were very small after you cut the heads and tails off."

No one seems to know how the bluegill got there. The guess is that somebody dumped some in the lake once and the fish took it from there.

The bass found a home in the lake when fishermen transplanted them, said Rick Gonzalez, 26, a Lakewood carpenter. He confessed to being one of those fishermen who catch small bass at other fishing spots during the spring, releasing them in the lake. In the summer, the fish, which have grown larger, provide these fishermen with some fun, Gonzalez said.

"Catfish don't put up much of a fight. The bass do. You can feel their weight. It's an exciting feeling as the line takes off," Gonzalez said.

"That one hit pretty hard," Gonzalez said, smiling as he reeled in his third bass of the day.

The two-pound, foot-long fish was quickly unhooked and return to the lake.

"Its all for the fun of it. I only eat the fish I catch in the ocean," Gonzalez said.

Yes, B.J., there are fish in the Cerritos lake.

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